Pay Attention! Two Powerful Ways to Focus On The Work At Hand
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
You see a great deal of advice on the idea that you need to eliminate distractions and stay focused on a task. Much of it simply enumerates common distractions and instructs you to get rid of them. But what you really want to know is how to pay attention to your immediate work in such a way that you don't go mentally wandering off and fail to finish. Or fail to finish on time.
Most distractions can't be eliminated. That's because the distractions are internal -- your own thoughts, feelings, dreams -- not external. Face it, if you are absorbed in something interesting and intriguing, such as playing an exciting computer game or watching a TV action show, you maintain your focus no matter what. People who know me have often said that when I'm reading, you could set off a bomb and I wouldn't notice.
It's not that you have to eliminate the distractions so much as you need to be able to concentrate on your tasks well enough to finish them satisfactorily and within your deadlines. If the work is interesting and captivating, that's easy. Most tasks aren't so fascinating. In fact, most of the details of tasks are downright dull.
The good news is this: the secret to maintaining focus is simple and easy to practice. The bad news is that it's a skill you must learn and practice daily. The second good news is that once you commit to practice, you acquire the habit quickly.
Here are the top two ways to achieve and maintain focus. There are other methods and factors, but if you use just these two, you will have the basics you need to get almost any task done efficiently and competently:
1. Time blocking for attention.
You've probably heard of time "blocking" or "chunking" for time management. I've never seen anyone explain why that works. So, I'll tell you. It works because you, as an average human being, can only concentrate on any given task for a certain amount of time and then your attention will wander. It happens to everyone. You have to break down your task into components that can be completed within your own natural attention span. That span is different for each person. (Actually, your attention may wander anyway, no matter how short the time block, but it's easier to catch and return if you're dealing with short blocks. More on that in method #2 later.)
At first, it is a matter of trial and error. For example, if you have to write a report or an article, what works better for you: write one paragraph in 5 minutes and take an attention break or write one page in 15 minutes and take an attention break? In such a case you would set blocks of time/task units in 5 or 15 minutes for the duration of the report.
Simply try various time task blocks until you find what works for you.
2. Capturing the wandering mind.
Whether you are trying to focus on a task or trying to learn to meditate, you are going to encounter what Zen teachers call "the monkey mind." You probably understand what it is just by what it's called. Your mind is like a wild, chattering monkey, jumping from tree to tree. Many thousands of thoughts pass through your mind in the course of a day. (I can't cite the research that supposedly estimates we have from 12,000 to 50,000 thoughts per day, because it is so misquoted all over the 'net that I can't find the origin. Nevertheless, even without the reference, you can figure out that you have way more thoughts than you can track.)
So what to do when your mind goes off on an unrelated tangent or daydream? Easy. Start by accepting that it is natural. When you notice your mind wandering away, take your wayward monkey by the hand and lead it gently back to the task. Repeat the process consistently, without judgement or chagrin. After a while, it will become second nature to do this, and you'll start to notice that the wanderings are fewer and fewer. You'll also start catching your wandering more quickly.
The key here is acceptance. No matter how disciplined you are or how much will power you have, the mind simply has a tendency toward chaos. Patient practice can make it manageable and make you become calmer, more confident and more focused.
The knowledge of this process is what causes so many psychologists to recommend meditation as a practice. This is the same process used in many forms of meditation to train the meditator to become aware and "mindful."
When you practice being mindful of your task, you boost both performance and productivity and you feel in control of your mind and behavior.
I know it sounds too simple to say all you have to do is catch your mind wandering and return it to the task, again and again until the task is done. But that is exactly the way it works. You may also object that you're doing that already and it's not working. However, if you are like most people, that's not actually what you're doing. What you're doing is finding your mind wandering and then scolding it and feeling bad about it. Then you start feeling unable to control yourself. That's more wandering. The difference is in simple acceptance. Don't wander further and waste more time with judgements and negativity. Just go get your monkey and put it back on track. It will get better trained in time.
C.S. Clarke, Ph.D. is a psychologist/coach who publishes Superperformance.com: Human Performance and Achievement Resources, providing a wide range of content and tools for improving human performance and productivity. Dr. Clarke also publishes EverydayDelight.com, a website on positive psychology, positive thinking and everyday happiness. Superperformance ® is a trademark.